Startups often relegate non-technology roles to the background in a bid to ship products quickly. However, these roles are often as important in the overall success of the company as the technical roles, and one such important role is that of the startup lawyer. 

At the beginning of the technology boom in Africa, the standard practice was for startups to outsource their legal processes to law firms. With the increase in funding in Africa, more startups have become aware of the importance of having an in-house lawyer focused specifically on their legal needs. 

Being a relatively new development, it is not far-fetched to assume that startups might not know what to look for in a startup lawyer. To identify the unique qualities a startup lawyer should have, I asked 4 lawyers what qualities startups should look for in an in-house counsel. 

Olutimilehin Olushuyi is a lawyer with experience working in-house for a fintech startup and providing legal advisory for early-stage startups.

Olutimilehin Olushuyi: I think startups need to begin their questions with, “Do we need an in-house lawyer or a lawyer I can reach out to when needed?” I say this because, while you always need a lawyer, a couple of factors determine if you need one employed with you or if you need one on a retainer. These factors include how regulated your sector of operation is. The regulations guiding fintech and food ordering companies are very different from one another. The size and stage of your startup’s growth matter as well. A startup at the ideation stage has different needs from a startup that has begun operations.

You also need to be conscious and properly assess your options when engaging a lawyer due to the nature of the role. A proper assessment cannot be understated. Like with every other kind of service, there is the tendency to have a “value mismatch” if you do not engage on the terms that fit your needs.

The first thing to look out for in a lawyer is honesty, and it is the single most important feature, to me. The reason is that a lawyer holds the life of your startup in his hands. You need a lawyer that informs you of the whole reality every time a situation comes up. Brilliance is overrated; it’s the law, and there will always be a solution. You want a lawyer that can tell you, “I am not sure what the position of the law on this is, allow me to run some checks.”  Your lawyer should be comfortable enough to tell you, “This is outside my speciality, we need to bring this person in to handle this particular part of the issue.”  If you find a lawyer that can be this honest with you, you are in good hands, regardless of how convoluted the legal situation might be.

Emmanuel Ido is an associate at Olajide Oyewole LLP (DLA Piper Africa).

Emmanuel Ido: Almost every startup is unique, from its product to its people. The role of a startup lawyer is essential to support the startup from a legal perspective such that it can function at optimum capacity. Whether the startup is pre-seed, bootstrapped or VC-funded, a good startup lawyer is crucial for its day-to-day running. Aside from the practical skills, there are a few things to look out for when hiring a lawyer for your startup.

First, the lawyer’s sector knowledge is important. When hiring a lawyer for your startup, one should consider the level of sector knowledge. This will be handy when drafting and negotiating contracts, advising the startup, and general day-to-day operations.  A good startup lawyer should be well-grounded in data protection, intellectual property management, labour and employment law, corporate governance, public policy, dispute resolution, etc. 

Another thing to look out for is the lawyer’s sector experience. A startup lawyer must have relevant experience within the tech sector. The experience will come from doing the work. For instance, a corporate and finance lawyer who has practical experience will be suited to advising a fintech company. A quick review of their deal sheet will give you an idea of the type of lawyer they are and how suitable they will be for your startup. 

The lawyer’s regulatory interface is also very important because it’s almost impossible to operate a startup without constant regulatory interface. To this end, your lawyer should be someone with sufficient knowledge of the regulators and the relevant contacts.

The 3 categories above roughly summarise what is needed in a startup lawyer. Of course, they must have the right soft skills and are good at working in a team in a dynamic environment, as most startups are.

Zikora Okwor-Wewan is a partner at Springwoods LP.

Zikora Okwor-Wewan: The first thing that I think a startup should look for in a lawyer is transaction experience and compliance experience. This is not to say that a lawyer with experience in other fields should not be considered. However, that lawyer should be adaptable enough to learn.  

A startup lawyer should also be able to work in a startup environment, which is not as rigid as a law firm. The lawyer should ideally be someone that can think on their feet and be able to prioritise. It is not all conflicts that require a court sitting; some legal matters require collaboration. The lawyer should have a multi-faceted approach to legal matters. 

The lawyer should also be able to maintain and build relationships with regulators and your competitors. This is very relevant. A startup lawyer should be aware of regulatory developments ahead of the public to navigate these developments smoothly. Unlike law firms, a startup can’t afford a lawyer that doesn’t have attention to detail.

Lastly, as the startup evolves so too should its legal needs evolve. An early-stage startup requires basic things like incorporation and a founder’s contract. However, as you scale, the legal demands greatly increase. At this stage, the startup should liaise with its lawyer to understand the next steps to take to meet these demands.  

‘Tooni Ajiboye is a lawyer at Banwo & Ighodalo, and a writer. 

‘Tooni Ajiboye:  The first thing to look out for is technical expertise. Knowledge of the law is the whole basis of a lawyer in a startup. As such, the first and most important thing is for the in-house counsel to be highly technical in the knowledge and application of law to issues arising out of your business. Also, a necessary plus is more industry-streamlined knowledge and awareness of current market solutions that are needed for that startup. 

Perhaps more useful for the startup than the lawyer’s technical expertise is the lawyer’s creativity, business savvy, and solutions-oriented outlook. The lawyer mustn’t be restricted to the legal side of the startup only, as this may negatively impact some of the creative solutions that the product and engineering team may want to bring on board. It is therefore important for the founders to look out for the creative flair in the lawyer candidates they are speaking to.  

Lastly, cultural fit is very important. While lawyers are inclined to be more regimented in their approach, working in a startup will require the flexibility of whatever candidate you are looking to scoop up into your team. 

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